Deal reached to temporarily resolve conversion crisis

Haredi leaders Deri and Gafni storm out of meeting but return later to continue negotiations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following a week of severe tensions between the government and the Diaspora Jewish leadership, a deal has been reached to temporarily resolve the crisis over controversial legislation on conversion.
The deal was announced Friday after intense negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition party leaders, including those of haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, with the agreement of the heads of the progressive Jewish movements.
The negotiations nearly fell apart Friday when the heads of the haredi parties suddenly objected to one aspect of the proposals but eventually agreed on a temporary solution that will hold for at least six months.
Netanyahu speaks at a cabinet meeting in the Western Wall (credit: GPO)
Nevertheless, some 2,000 people gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Saturday night to protest the government’s recent actions that overturned the Western Wall agreement, as well as conversion legislation. Their presence disrupted traffic in the area as they completely blocked Aza Street.
The gathering was organized by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, the Reform Movement and Women of the Wall.
“The purpose of this gathering is to hold Israel to its political promises, the Kotel agreement, to insure justice is done with regard to the Conversion Law,” said Andrew Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly and bureau of religious affairs of the Masorti Movement. “We have spent almost 70 years building the State of Israel and the next 70 years has to insure that we endow it with Zionism as we understand it, and that includes democratic values, not the views of a single group.”
The demonstrators held placards reading “There is more than one way to be Jewish,” lit candles and recited the havdala prayer as musicians performed on a stage.
Under the agreement reached Friday, the state, together with the Reform and Masorti Movements will request that the High Court of Justice delay by at least six months a ruling on a petition to grant non-Orthodox converts recognition by the state.
In return, the haredi parties have agreed to suspend their legislation, which would have granted the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversion and preempt the High Court ruling by denying in law any recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions done in Israel, as well as those of non-state, independent Orthodox rabbinical courts. Netanyahu will now appoint a task force to review the issue and present alternative arrangements within six months, while requesting that legislation on the issue not be advanced until the committee reports back.
Haredi leadership strongly objects to state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, although it should be noted that even if granted recognition by the High Court, such converts would still not be able to marry through the Chief Rabbinate.
Because of the threat of state recognition of non-Orthodox converts through the High Court, the haredi parties introduced a bill to preemptively circumvent any such ruling, which was approved by the government for passage to the Knesset last Sunday.
This incensed the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements who argue that the bill would set a precedent giving ever greater control over Jewish status issues in Israel and the Diaspora to the Chief Rabbinate.
The Yisrael Beytenu party appealed the government decision, which gave the coalition time to come up with alternative arrangements.
At one stage during Friday’s meeting of the coalition heads, Interior Minister Arye Deri (Shas) and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) stormed out of the negotiations because of questions regarding what would happen if the High Court decides to rule on the petition regardless of the request to freeze it.
Deri and Gafni secured a promise from the prime minister that if the High Court does issue a ruling, regardless of the request, which changes the status quo, “the government will be obligated to its coalition agreements,” meaning the haredi legislation will be advanced.
“Peace within the Jewish people is something very important to me. It is important to me as the prime minister of Israel and personally as a member of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said following the announcement of the deal.
The prime minister also called on the High Court to grant the request not to rule on the petition “because it will cool emotions and create an opening for hope that an agreed-upon arrangement can be reached.”
In comments made after the deal was achieved, Gafni took aim at claims that “Diaspora Jewry” was opposed to the conversion bill and the suspension of the Western Wall agreement, claiming that “half of AIPAC members are religious or haredi,” and that “the time has come to stop terrorizing [Israel] over stopping donations and harming the State of Israel as the European Union does.”
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the compromise and the extra time to discuss the conversion issue.
“Together, we will ensure Israel remains the homeland of the entire Jewish People,” Bennett said.
“Conversation is the key to Jewish unity, and close relations with US Jews are a strategic asset of Israel. Over the past week, I spoke with many Israeli and Diaspora leaders and am pleased to have found common ground. I want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu and all the parties involved for their part in ending the crisis.”
The Jewish Agency also welcomed the agreement.
“We hope that the task force appointed by the prime minister will reach a conclusion that strengthens the unity of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora,” the organization said in a statement to the press.
“The Jewish Agency also sincerely hopes that the spirit seen over the last two days will lead to the resolution of the issues surrounding the Western Wall, as provided by the agreement previously reached by all concerned.”
President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America Jerry Silverman wrote to the group’s executive directors on Friday, reporting on the agreement and the coming steps.
He also said the activism of the federations and other Jewish groups had been effective on both the conversion issue and that of the abandoned Western Wall plan: “Raising the issue to local Israeli consuls general, writing letters and emails to those of influence, and speaking out to the media – have made an enormous impact.”
Silverman said he is hopeful an agreement will be worked out over the conversion bill “so that we do not have to face this again,” but noted that there was still “a lot of work to do.”
He also mentioned the now indefinitely suspended Western Wall resolution, saying the government is moving forward with plans to upgrade the site and that the JFNA would be focused on trying to have the shared governance of the site and joint entrance with the main Western Wall complex advanced, as well.
The issue of governance and the joint entrance were the two most important clauses of the plan for the progressive Jewish movements and the two aspects of the plan most opposed by the haredi parties.
“We believe that the promise of the Kotel – “one wall for one Jewish people” – must be implemented,” wrote Silverman.
“We will not sit back and take a wait-and-see approach.
We will remain vocal in our pursuit of having this promise fulfilled. We are working on a grassroots campaign that engages our community to maintain momentum and we will encourage Israelis – who are also impacted by these decisions – to join us in this effort. In the coming days, we will be presenting campaign options for your consideration.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.